At 40, 'Z' is still chilling, compelling

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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If Costa-Gavras' "Z" wasn't the first political docudrama, it definitely felt like it in 1969. A thriller based on tumultuous, barely-disguised events in early 1960s Greece, the film galvanized audiences worldwide when it was released, amassing an unprecedented five Oscar nominations (including best picture; it won the foreign language and editing awards), and reframing the ways international events and populist fervor could be turned into commercial cinema. It was a date movie that sent you out into the streets, fists upraised.

Now, 40 years on, the film's popping up for a reunion tour long after the specific flames surrounding it have died down. Has it dated? In filmmaking techniques, of course: Nothing says the late '60s like a dramatic camera zoom. In its slick cinematic urgency and its outrage, though, "Z" still has the power to shake you up.

Loosely based on the murder of leftist politician Grigoris Lambrakis by the Greek military in 1963, the film casts Yves Montand as a pacifist firebrand cut down by goons during a political rally. The government and the generals maintain the death was an auto accident, but the investigating magistrate assigned to the case (Jean-Louis Trintignant) slowly amasses the evidence that proves otherwise.

What made "Z" so different from its immediate forebear, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 "Battle of Algiers," was Costa-Gavras' ease with genre filmmaking in a current-events context. After the assassination there's a chase scene as nerve-wracking as anything on screen in 1969, and it's followed by a skillful, suspenseful procedural drama. The thugs (Marcel Bozzuffi and Renato Salvatori) are eminently hissable villains.

Best of all, the journey of the unnamed magistrate, blandly impartial behind his thick glasses, is worthy of Hollywood heroes like Henry Fonda. When the magistrate finally, almost accidentally refers to the politician's death as a "murder," you can feel the movie's moral universe shift on its axis.

Some of the film's touches were heavy-handed: a little of Irene Papas' noble-widow act goes a long way. But "Z" retains its power to shock and compel, with a coda that mirrors real events in Greece - soon enough the generals took over the government - in a way that leaves an audience more troubled than entertained. Hollywood political thrillers have absorbed this movie's you-are-there filmmaking grammar. Rarely have they re-created its fire.

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Directed by: Costa-Gavras

Written by: Jorge Semprun, based on a novel by Vassili Vassilikos

Starring: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Irene Papas

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 127 minutes

In French, with subtitles

Rated: PG (mild violence)